Monken better be right that Stetson Bennett gives Bulldogs best chance at title

Georgia offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Todd Monken said that Stetson Bennett proved to have been initially undervalued by him and the coaching staff with his play on the field this season. (Photo by Mackenzie Miles/UGA Athletics)

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Georgia offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Todd Monken said that Stetson Bennett proved to have been initially undervalued by him and the coaching staff with his play on the field this season. (Photo by Mackenzie Miles/UGA Athletics)

Georgia surely is the first team to make the College Football Playoff with a healthy starting quarterback and doubts about whether he’s the right worker for the assignment. Coordinator Todd Monken said the questions aren’t coming from inside the building. The Bulldogs are going with Stetson Bennett over JT Daniels in Friday’s CFP semifinal against Michigan in the Orange Bowl.

“Without getting into too much detail, we think he gives us the best chance to win, and that’s really the end of that question,” Monken said Tuesday from south Florida.

That’s good for a laugh. The interrogation has only stared.

The Bulldogs lost the SEC Championship game to Alabama as Bennett scuffled. If it happens again against Michigan in the Orange Bowl, or in the national championship game 10 days later, the questions about why Monken and coach Kirby Smart played Bennett over Daniels will never end.

Daniels recently cleared COVID-19 protocols. Monken said he’s ready to go, but the Bulldogs are set to ride Bennett to the national championship.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we can win it with Stetson Bennett,” Monken said.

If Monken has any doubts, he obviously wouldn’t say so publicly. I don’t question his sincerity because there’s plenty of evidence to support his optimism. It’s always been clear to me why Monken and Smart stuck with Bennett. He was playing well, and the Bulldogs were winning.

Bennett passed big tests against Arkansas and Kentucky. He had an off-game against Florida, but responded with fantastic performances vs. Missouri and at Tennessee. Maybe you believed the Bulldogs should have switched to Daniels, anyway, in anticipation of future shootouts. If so, congratulations on having the foresight to know UGA’s defense would collapse against Alabama.

Monken notes that the Bulldogs were favored to beat the Crimson Tide, who’ve rarely been underdogs since Nick Saban started winning championships: “That ought to tell you about our quarterback and how he played. ... If you just look at the production and what he’s done for our football team, it’s impressive.”

It was, until it wasn’t. It it took less than a half to see that the betting markets were off on Alabama-Georgia. There were two big questions about the Bulldogs: Could they slow Alabama’s deep passing game, and if not, could they score enough points to keep up? The Bulldogs could do neither and so got everything they deserved.

Bennett’s performance reopened the long-running referendum on how Smart picks his quarterback. Daniels opened the season as the starter. Then he got hurt, and Bennett was very good as his replacement. Then Daniels got healthy, but Bennett no longer was the replacement. He was The Guy after coaches decided during the offseason that Daniels was The Guy ... until he got hurt.

Monken said he “probably undervalued (Bennett’s) skill set” to begin with.

“Some guys just combat that and fight and scratch and continue to play well and try to prove you wrong, and that’s what Stetson Bennett did,” Monken said. “It wasn’t really anything JT did. It was more along the lines of what Stetson did that we thought gave us the best chance to win: his mobility ... in the run game and the pass game when things break down., we believe give us the best chance to win.”

See the Tennessee game for why that’s valuable. Bennett weathered a relentless pass rush, made plays throwing and running and didn’t force anything. Bennett couldn’t repeat the feat against Bama. It’s not a given that he’ll struggle in his next big game against a tough foe. Some Georgia supporters, still stung by Jake Fromm playing over Justin Fields, have their doubts.

Bennett said he doesn’t use social media and so doesn’t “wallow in” what critics are saying. The noise is impossible to ignore. Bennett’s strategy is to consider the source.

“You can’t put any value on people who really have no clue what they’re talking about,” Bennett said. “I wouldn’t listen to myself if I was giving a speech on heart surgery. Not comparing football to heart surgery, but it’s the same kind of gist. So why would I listen to somebody who doesn’t do this for a living and just watches it happen?”

That view is perhaps uncharitable to Bennett’s detractors. Yet his frustration is understandable. For most of the season he was one of the more efficient quarterbacks in the nation for the consensus No. 1 team. One bad game, and he’s back to being the former walk-on playing ahead of the former five-star recruit.

Moken didn’t give up on Bennett during, or after, the Florida game. Smart was talking about an open competition at quarterback in the following days. The topic was moot after Bennett’s play against Missouri and Tennessee. It was relevant again when Daniels stayed on the sideline as the Crimson Tide roughed up Bennett.

Why didn’t Monken try Daniels at QB after the Florida game, or during the Bama game?

“The body of work that we felt like that Stetson had given us I think allowed us to carry it over to the next weeks,” he said. “The reality is that we don’t know what’s behind the next decision. We make the decision based on what we see on a daily basis.”

That seems to be a signal that Daniels will get the call if Bennett struggles again. I doubt it comes to that. I see Bennett responding with another good performance. And while Daniels has the better pedigree, I’ve never considered him to be an obvious upgrade over Bennett in 2021. Both quarterbacks have sprinkled in a few subpar games among many good ones.

Also, remember that Bennett had to rally the Bulldogs against Alabama because their all-time great defense got bullied. That group isn’t supposed to surrender 34 points and 536 yards to any opponent. That’s a more worrisome development for Georgia than Bennett’s bad game.

Everybody knows there’s only one way Bennett can quiet that noise. He’s got to help the Bulldogs win their first national championship since 1980. The Bulldogs probably won’t have to score as much to beat Michigan, which doesn’t throw the ball like the Bama. Bennett and Co. will have to be good, or at least better than last time.

“Ultimately it falls on me, and when Stetson Bennett takes the field, we feel like he gives us the best chance to win,” Monken said.

That’s Monken’s story, and he’s sticking to it. I’m sure he believes it. Now Bennett must prove Monken right or the coach will never stop hearing questions about why he didn’t go back to Daniels.